Words matter. And leadership matters. Words from leaders especially matter.
We need to hear today the words of Abraham Lincoln, the young Republican Party’s second presidential nominee and its first president, who appealed to the best instincts of the human spirit as the better way to navigate through the storm of national division he faced.
In the conclusion of his majestic first inaugural address of 1861, Lincoln invoked symbolic images to forge a rhetoric of unity. Its final passage has found its place as American scripture: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Then, in his second inaugural address of 1865, after years of bloody civil war and with every reason to boast triumphantly or foment contempt and derision of his vanquished Southern countrymen, he said instead, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
By all measure, those words have power. They move people. They are carved in stone, engraved in hearts, memorized by schoolchildren. They transcend in a spiritual way. They matter.
Now, by contrast, the leader of the Republican Party and the president of the United States leads by dividing, deriding, and debasing. It’s gross understatement to say his words are crass, ill-conceived and wholly forgettable. The more damaging thing is that he works actively to rip apart civic bonds, to tear down, to separate and to make distinctions between who rightly belongs in this country and who doesn’t.
Instead of rhetorically binding up wounds, he inflicts them.
As Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center stated in a June column for The New York Times, “(President Donald) Trump has flipped the Republican Party from outward looking to inward looking, from the champion of an open society into the cheerleader of a closed one, from optimism to pessimism. (It’s a long road to travel to get from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘American carnage.’) A party that once claimed to abhor ‘identity politics’ now relies on them as its closing argument in elections.”
By its refusal to confront the insidious flaws and failures in Trump’s character and behavior, today’s Republican Party is, as Wehner states, “complicit in the debasement of American culture and politics.” And even worse, many of Trump’s “most vocal and prominent evangelical supporters, because of their rank hypocrisy, are doing more to damage Christian witness” than so-called relativism ever could.
Wehner continues: “Beyond that, in their ferocious defense of the president, Trump supporters are signaling that decency is a form of weakness, that cruelty is a welcome and highly effective political weapon and that the low road is the preferred road. At one point, Republicans were willing to tolerate Mr. Trump’s brutish tactics and reprehensible character as the price of party loyalty; today many of them seem to relish it. They see the dehumanization of others as a form of entertainment.”
I agree with Wehner that this brings “a crushing price,” to the Republican Party and is forcing young people and voters elsewhere. “The Trump ascendancy has made far too many Republicans increasingly contemptuous of serious intellectual and policy argument, indifferent to empirical truth and disdainful of governing,” Wehner notes. “They prefer to turn politics into an ongoing freak show.”
Wehner, who has served in three previous Republican administrations, tries to conclude his piece on an upbeat note: “There also may be still, small voices out there who believe in healing and renewal and who know that those can't begin until the party rejects the malignancy of Trumpism and embraces the belief that politics is not only a necessary activity but a noble calling.”
I urge Republicans, and all Americans, to remember the towering Lincoln. He stands so tall in the pantheon of our history because he knew real power: words matter, even after lives expire.
Lancaster Township resident Ann Womble is a former chair of the Lancaster County Republican Committee and former community member of the LNP Editorial Board. She is a Millersville University trustee.